Book of Marvels
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
The Pungent and The Sweet

My friend had taken her seder plate down from the wall, where it usually hangs under the Mexican folk art sconce I gave her and her almost spouse a few years ago. Now, it was on the table, its scroll-like calligraphy nearly hidden by the egg, the parsley, the chicken bone (they didn't have lamb), and the horseradish. Off in the kitchen, a ham was waiting for the next day's Easter gathering. They are that kind of couple, it was that kind of weekend.

The horseradish had been prepared by another friend, ground from her own roots with some fresh beets thrown in. It was a gorgeous zinfandel color, unlike the horseradish in my picture, which came from a jar and looks more like applesauce. I was greedy for it, ate it on my matzo and my brisket and even licked it from my stained fingertips.

I almost named this post, "Back when I was Jewish." I wasn't really, but I was married to a Jewish man for nearly twenty years who had grown up in a tiny town in the Catskills. I had been madly in love with him--at least, for a long time--and adored his family, as well as the friends and relatives who filled their lives. I wasn't Jewish, but I had a Jewish last name and knew a bracing handful of Yiddish epithets and looked more like my in-laws than my husband did. People would walk into my mother-in-law's office, see the portrait of my husband and me on her desk, and say, "Your daughter married such a nice-looking boy!" During my brief stint in corporate communications at American Greetings, someone once came to ask me if I was interested in managing the Jewish card and gift-wrap lines. She was surprised when I said that I wasn't, you know, really Jewish.

My in-laws weren't religious, and I never went to a seder in their home. In fact, they were adamantly anti-religious; his father had equal opportunity contempt for both rabbis and priests. But all the ingredients at the seder the other night-- the matzo, the gefilte fish, the brisket, the horseradish--were regulars on their table.

The horseradish often came from friends who lived on a chicken farm in an even tinier town than theirs; I don't think it had more than a outhouse-sized post office and a one-pump gas station. I always wanted to write about these friends, and now I'm sorry I didn't. Two brothers and their wives shared an old house across the road from a pond where they all fished summer and winter, through the ice. My husband and his sister had been regular visitors there when they were growing up, and then we--with our children--went calling every time we visited his parents.

It was a magical place. The two brothers and their wives were small and the rooms of the house were small and so crowded with wonders-- thousands of books and little sculptures and bowls of candy and platters of bowtie cookies and a baby grand piano and large chairs in which the small people looked like slightly wizened children, burnished with kindness and humor. One of the wives was such a lovely person. She was my mother-in-law's best friend; when she died, years after my divorce, I think my mother-in-law started to die, too. This woman was the smallest of the four. Her high-heeled shoes fit the children perfectly and she didn't mind if they clomped around in them. She always made egg salad before we came, and it was always perfect, the Platonic ideal of egg salad realized.

Outside, one of the brothers had a large garden, untended and unfenced. He planted enough, he said, to share with the rabbits and the deer. There was always a circle of chairs near the garden but under the reach of the trees where we sat in the summers and talked. These were long meandering hours with no urgency, no agenda. The other brother had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had stories, but you had to beg them from him; mostly, he liked to talk about the fish across the road and the funny things that people were doing around the county. He was my father-in-law's best friend (serendipitously, he was married to the woman with the tiny shoes). When my father-in-law died, the grief of it dimmed something forever in this brother.

The four of them made their own horseradish once a year in a big building attached to the back of their house. I think they used this room to inspect and package eggs the rest of the time, but when they ground the horseradish it was as if someone had lobbed tear gas into the room. When we'd pull up their long, weedy driveway during horseradish season, our eyes would start to water before we got out of the car. We'd have to run through this room with our arms across our eyes to get into the house, to reach for the perfect egg salad and the platter of bowtie cookies and the tiny shoes.

Those days now seem so perfect-- like scenes from a old movie or exquisite little paintings or even charms hanging from a bracelet. I don't know why someone older and wiser didn't pull me aside and tell me that these days wouldn't last, that these people wouldn't last, that the angers and disappoinments and anxieties that took up too much of my time should be pushed aside, as much as possible, so that I could partake more fully in the life that bloomed in this particular way for only a while. Maybe they didn't know this themselves. Maybe it seemed too obvious to mention.

That's the way it was; that's the way I thought it would always be.

Am I the only one who looks back in surprise? Posted by Picasa
Why does this make me want to cry? I sometimes think, I am living in the middle of a golden time, and it will not last, but then I forget about that and yell at people or stay too long at work, or forget to pay attention to how someone looks when they do their homework, with their nose wrinkled up like the math smells sort of bad.

But what I really regret is how, with the older people, the ones who have all died in the last decade, I didn't write down the things they said about the past. Now all I have are their objects and the unlabelled pictures.

Maybe that's why I love your tiny horseradish people and their full house and full lives. Lucky you to have partaken of that even for a little while. And lucky you to be such a wonderful writer, to be able to make it all real again.
I meet my mother and her sisters at a local diner every Thursday morning at 9:30 -- have been doing it for almost a decade now -- and when I see those women in their 80s and hear their old lady/young girl sibling squabbles I think how lucky I am to be witnessing it all.

Thanks for the beautiful post.

K-Oh, I always get so lost in your blog posts... that's a huge and heartfelt compliment.

You are not the only one who looks back in surprise. I was contacted recently by a former boyfriend who just came back to the states and happened to settle in Cleveland and hear me on the radio (for work.) In trying to catch him up on what's happened in my life for the past decade, I kept stumbling over my words because my thoughts were getting in the way.

(Am I really "that girl" who got married right out of college and got divorced 5 years later? How did I end up doing that, anyway, when I never could imagine myself in a church and a white dress?)

By the way, I was very excited to see your book in an adorable, eclectic shop in Lakewood last week. I was lamenting my momentary lack of funds, but I made a mental note to go back there in a few weeks. :)

- Kim (aka Blackswamp_gir) who cannot for some reason sign in to post a comment here.
In answer to your question, yes a bit at the end. And yet these are lovely stories. 0xx00x sml
Wonderful post--it made me wish you'd write a short story about these people--I'd like to visit with them longer.
Grr-- Blogger has not been letting me add a comment! I wrote a long note to each of you twice and now I'm just too annoyed to try again if this time bombs yet again. But thanks, all, for your comments.

I wish I'd been able to photograph that beet horseradish for this post-- the colors in my picture make me a little ill.
My in-laws, who are Polish and Slovak, make that beet horseradish, too. But why am I focusing on the food after reading such a wonderful, astoundingly wise post? Maybe it's because we find the most amazing truths in those small details, those evocative flavors.

Your last three paragraphs are among the most powerful I've read in a long time. But maybe that's partially because, I, too, look back in surprise.
This post reminded me of a fairy tale--the tiny shoes, the room that makes you cry, the fish in the pond across the road.
This post is astonishingly beautiful. Tears all around; it touches something so elemental and effemerial about living life and growing older and searching your memories for something "true."

Please please make it into a memoir essay or a short non-fiction. Those of us in the dreary heavy work-a-day world need to get to know these people so our hearts can unfold a little and breathe in the sharp taste of horseradish and the sweetness of memory.
This post is so beautiful and full of meaning...writing about memories like this is a wonderful tribute to those who took part in it but have gone before you.

I am married to a Jewish man and as much as I take part in helping our children learn about these festivals, I am still learning so much about them myself.

Thanks for giving us so much to think about!
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